Glance Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1
Panamas with Panache
Story & Photos by Joseph Pier
As you walk up the narrow main street of Bisbee, Arizona, you might feel that time has not passed through here since the 1950's, when the Copper Queen Mine was in full swing. On thecorner, nestled among trendy shops and art galleries, is Optimo Custom Hat Works. The display window in this pie-shaped building gives only a hint of the beautiful array of Panama hats that await inside. We are met by the owner- Bisbee's most renown artisan, S. Grant Sergot, who gives us an introductory tour of his shop and working studio. Throughout the store, a variety of hats stand like sculptures of straw on display. He ushers us toward the back of this renovated Victorian building, where his workshop is located. The rustic brick and the glow of his work lamps give warmth and character to the room. "I want my friends and customers to feel comfortable and relaxed when they come to the shop," he states, as we sit at his work bench and start our interview.
A native of Michigan, S. Grant Sergot decided in his early twenties to go to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his mother lived and worked as a sculptor. "On my way south, I stopped at the Grand Canyon. Its refreshing blue skies and clean air was a big change from the winters in Ann Arbor. It was at this time that I heard about Bisbee, a mining town which had slowly grounded to a halt, and where the price of real estate was good. I arrived in 1974, and was immediately sold on the idea of settling here," Grant recalls. After spending six years promoting local artists, he decided to take some time off and travel through Latin America. His adventures led him to Equador, where he discovered the beauty and versatility of Panama hats. Hand woven by the descendants of the pre-Hispanic Inca culture, these straw hats are woven from carefully selected "Paja Toquilla." This palmetto plant, native to Ecuador, offered Grant a new form of sculpting. "The hats are a form of fiber art... the fine weaves, the molding and shaping, which when finished, offers me a more gratifying and satisfying feeling than other forms of sculpting." Taking a moment to show us some of his recent creations, he is careful to point out the different types of weaves. "The hats are graded from one to twenty in ascending order. Fino hats begin at ten and a fino fino hat qualifies at twenty," he explains. "The fineness of the hat is determined by the quality of the straw used and the tightness of the weave." Holding up two hats to a light he demonstrates the weave pattern on grade 17 which he likens to silk and the larger pattern on grade 10 which he compares to fine cotton.
Self taught in the art of forming the hats, he returned to Bisbee and opened Optimo Custom Hat Works, where he has been custom-fitting "Panamas" for about five years. When asked how he determines the correct hat for a certain person, he compares it to a form of over-the-counter theater. "You are dealing with people's egos, especially someone who doesn't feel comfortable wearing a hat. The hat has to match the personality of the wearer and how it will be used. It's important to match the shape of the hat to the body form and body language." This is an art Mr. Sergot has mastered.
His hat styles for men and women vary from fedoras to the Tom and Tami Mix cowboy hats. The prices range from $20 for an unblocked hat to $3,000 for a grade 17. This compares favorably to Sante Fe, where high grade hats sell for as high as $9,000 and in San Francisco, the same grade sells for $15,000.
Some of his famous shoppers include Faye Dunaway, who bought three, and Tom Selleck, who bought one for himself and one for his wife. Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Dean Anderson (from MacGyver) and John Deal (from Miami Vice) are also proud owners of an Optimo hat. He caters to a variety of people from stylish golfers, who use them to shield themselves from the Arizona sun, to people just wishing to make a fashion statement. "For me, the payoff is seeing customers' self-perception transformed when the walk out the door wearing their Panama hats," said Sergot.
With orders for his custom "Panamas" increasing beyond his capability, Grant had to train two additional people in the art of hat sculpting. The average wait for a custom hat is about 6 to 8 weeks, not bad when you consider you are not just getting a hat, but a piece of art, molded and shaped to meet your style and personality!